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Module Four

Write a character sketch of Desdemona

We discover early in the play that Desdemona is a very desirable and prized young woman. Her father Brabantio calls her

“a maid, so tender, fair, and happy...” [I.2.66]

and Roderigo, one of the first characters we meet, desires her—he may be more ‘in lust’ than ‘in love’ with her, but he is fairly constant in his determination, even though he does not really specify what has inspired his love.

Later, Cassio describes Desdemona most generously as

“a maid
That paragons description and wild fame” [II.1.61-2]


“a most exquisite lady” [II.3.18]

We learn, even before Desdemona appears, that she is a spirited and independent person. Her father says that she was too modest and discerning to wish to marry any of the “wealthy curléd darlings” of Venice; he is, however, quite unable to bring himself to believe that she could have deceived him—yet this proves to be the case. Perhaps it simply has not occurred to Brabantio that his daughter might have developed opinions and desires of her own. (This may be an indication that she is still a young girl: critic E A J Honigmann presents a strong case for Desdemona being perhaps no more than sixteen, but there do seem to be counter-arguments.)

It is telling that Othello was able to win Desdemona’s affection by recounting his adventures and life history to her. She is obviously greatly impressed by what he has endured:

“She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
And I loved her, that she did pity them.” [I.3.166-7]

Perhaps this ardent admiration is also an indication that this heroine is not yet a mature woman. Then again, the Duke himself is impressed with Othello’s dignified account of his wooing—unless his suggestion that Othello’s story would win his own daughter implies only that girls are easily influenced.

Once Desdemona appears in person, it becomes clear that she is indeed a most admirable young woman. Her speech to her father is wisely presented: she is perfectly respectful to the father to whom she has many obligations, yet absolutely clear that her loyalties have moved on. She understands and has some sympathy for her father’s wrath, and is able to present her wish not to remain with him in a light designed to appeal to him:

“I would not there reside
To put my father in impatient thoughts
By being in his eye.” [I.3.239-41]

Presumably it would be very uncomfortable for Desdemona herself to be in such a situation—but she either does not consider this important, or is too tactful to mention it. There is another reference to her tactful cleverness, showing her both bold and modest—she begged Othello to find a friend to woo her by telling her his stories. Thus she encouraged Othello himself to court her directly.

Iago does have a point when he accuses Desdemona of being a clever actress, for she has indeed managed to deceive her father completely, and to go absolutely against his wishes. Of course, it is not safe to accept everything Iago says, because his own point of view is so malign. In addition, we know Desdemona has deceived her father for good reasons—she loves the Moor, who is worthy of being loved; her father never considers Othello as a potential son-in-law despite regarding him as a worthy friend. Her deception is caused by her love, not by wickedness.

Certainly Desdemona is a ‘good girl’, despite having committed the serious transgression of choosing her own husband in spite of her father’s wishes (and very much against the grain of conventional society). She was plainly a dutiful daughter in other respects—Othello points out that her household duties kept taking her away from his company and his tales. Her behaviour as Othello’s wife is above reproach—Iago’s nasty opinions only serve to highlight the actual facts. He accuses her of base lusts, saying that she wanted the Moor as her bed-mate but will soon become bored with him and ready for a fresh lover. Venetian ladies were known for their ‘loose’ behaviour; nonetheless, Iago has no real reason for believing that what he says is true, beyond the corruptness of his own nature which makes it impossible for him to accept the essential honesty of other people. Desdemona makes a perfectly clear declaration:

“If to preserve this vessel for my lord
From any other foul unlawful touch
Be not to be a strumpet, I am none.” [IV.2.83-5]

She is very decided about what is right with regard to matrimonial fidelity: Emilia may declare herself willing to lie with another man if her husband could be advantaged by the act, but Desdemona rejects the idea:

“Beshrew me if I would do such a wrong for the whole world!” [IV.3.77-8]

In the broader sense, Desdemona is a representation of the good and noble in human nature, counterpointing Iago’s wickedness. Iago himself admits her goodness, although planning to twist it to his own ends, when he tells Cassio:

“She is of so free, so kind, so apt, so blessed
a disposition, that she holds it a vice in her goodness
not to do more than she is requested.” [II.3.310-312]

Desdemona confirms this, saying:

“If I do vow a friendship, I’ll perform it
To the last article.” [III.3.21-2]

She has a persistently generous spirit. Not only does she wish to help her friends, she is also willing to ask forgiveness for her enemies; when there is a suggestion that someone must have slandered her for Othello to behave as he has done, she says:

“If any such there be, heaven pardon him.” [IV.2.133]

In the end, she attempts to release Othello from blame for murdering her.

In addition, she is completely free from racial prejudice, contrasting with Iago’s and Roderigo’s insulting nastiness, and the Venetian lords’ less conscious bias against the Moor. She is of course aware that her husband is ‘black’, but she sees below the surface of his skin:

“I saw Othello’s visage in his mind” [I.3.253]

Other characters—notably her father—may be horrified that she could give herself to this alien creature, but his appearance is of little importance to her, compared to the essence of what he is.

Desdemona has a strong and enduring love for Othello—even though, at the same time, she does not really know him very well. Her wish to clear him of the guilt of her death is the final proof of it, but there are several others. The loss of the crucial handkerchief only occurs because, in her concern for his pain, she forgets to notice it. When he accuses her in his jealous rage she does not understand what he is talking about, but attempts to comfort him with the fact that she has forfeited her father’s love and company just as he has done. Even though he is angry with her, she loves him so much that “his checks, his frowns” are precious to her. She is upset by the alteration in her husband, but excuses him. Earlier in the play, her worry that he has not yet arrived in Cyprus, and her patent joy at seeing him again, are convincing proofs of her love.

Desdemona’s courageous spirit is made clear by the way she pretends a light heart while she is so worried for her husband’s safety. When it is Othello himself who frightens her, yet she remains calm, and retains some dignity even when he strikes her. In the face of his murderous rage she stays firm in her declarations of her own innocence, and begs him to behave rationally. (This maturity of character seems to me to be an argument against Desdemona’s extreme youth.)

However, she is not without fault. Like Othello, Desdemona is too willing to trust, for like him she accepts that Iago is an honest man—even though she herself describes him as

“a most profane and liberal counsellor” [II.1.160]

His ‘praise’ of good women rouses her to indignation, but she does not recognise the deep-seated malice inside him.

There is also the matter of her approach to Othello regarding the reinstatement of Cassio. It is right and proper that she understands Cassio’s worth, and appreciates his past help, but it is rather unwise to vow, in essence, that she will nag Othello until he gives in!

“My lord shall never rest,
I’ll watch him tame and talk him out of patience,
His bed shall seem a school, his board a shrift...” [III.3.22-24]

When her husband arrives, she puts up a good case, but she undeniably badgers him and he is very annoyed! Again, Honigmann suggests that this imprudent attack may also be an indication of her youth—she simply does not understand when she may have gone too far. Perhaps she has been too much indulged by her father. Perhaps she is so excited by this new relationship that she fails to realise that interfering with Othello’s military judgments is not her province. Knowing that her motives are good and that Cassio has been ‘set up’, her behaviour here does not diminish her as a force for good, although unfortunately for Desdemona it increases her husband’s suspicions. In fact, her error here increases the pitifulness of her fate; she is made more of an individual by her mistakes, but as she errs out of the best of motives, she remains the personification of the virtues of love, patience and forgiveness.


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